Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

It's a more robust Galaxy S4, with flood insurance thrown in for good measure

If there's one picture that sums up the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active for AT&T, this is it. Drops of water, artistically (more or less) sitting atop the Android smartphone. It cares not that several hundred dollars worth of electronics are flirting with a phone's worst enemy. In fact, the Active seems to welcome it. 

Samsung has taken what arguably is its best Galaxy S yet  — that'd be the proper Galaxy S4 —  and in nearly the same breath, announced a more robust version. These are fraternal twins. Same overall look and feel, but with a few important differences that also ensure you won't mistake one for the other.

In the United States, the Active is an AT&T exclusive, sold alongside it's ever-so-slightly older brother. So is one a better buy than the other?

The Good

Samsung's best phone just got (mostly) better, with the ability to withstand a swim. Actually, the Active welcomes time in the water and has a dedicated "Aqua" mode for underwater pics and video. More interesting industrial design, including physical buttons.

The Bad

You get a slightly worse display (TFT LCD versus AMOLED), lower-resolution camera (8MP versus 13MP) and lose out on a couple other minor features. The door over the USB port is annoying, but necessary. Only available on AT&T in the U.S.


Never mind the trade-offs. This phone simply is more fun to use than the original Galaxy S4. You can use it as an (expensive) underwater camera, or simply use the waterproofing as insurance against an untimely death. You've got most of the bells and whistles that are in the proper Galaxy S4, all in a more survivable package.

Inside this review

More info

The Galaxy S4 Active hardware

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active and the original S4

Summing up the Active is a pretty easy proposition. Take the original Galaxy S4, and beef it up just a bit. The Active, at 5.51 by 2.80 by 0.35 inches, is .13 inches taller, 0.06 inches wider and .04 inches thicker than its counterpart. Side by side you'll notice the difference, but probably not when it stands alone. Not that you'll notice, but it gains an extra 0.8 ounces in weight, too. We've said for some time that the race to a thinner phone hasn't necessarily made a better phone, and the beefier Active is a testament to that.

All the usual parts are in the same places. Volume rocker, headphone jack, power button, earpiece, speaker, camera housing — all look on the Active as they do on the GS4 proper. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

The biggest difference, of course, is the inclusion of three physical buttons — the menu and back buttons get this new treatment — instead of just a physical home button. One could make a decent argument for the physical buttons being better than the capacitive sort for a phone this size. They give you tactile feedback, which means you don't have to look down to make sure you're hitting the right spot. 

The other idea, of course, is that they behave better than capacitive buttons when wet. Samsung's done a nice job here. They have just enough click to them, as well as just the right amount of texture. They've also got a nice, understated design that keeps the look interesting without getting in the way.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

Flip the phone over and you'll see the other major physical difference. The design is a little more industrial than the original Galaxy S4 — we dare say we like it better. Exposed screws and a little texture at the top and bottom give the Active some personality that the GS4 proper lacks.  Also note the door that fits into and over the microUSB port, to keep out the elements.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

Remove the battery cover and you'll find the same internals as on the GS4 proper. SIM card, microSD card slot (it takes up to a 64GB card for expanded storage, which you'll probably need with only about 10GB of available storage on board) and the 2,600 mAh battery.

Also note the rubber gasket that fits into the recess around the phone's important bits. This is a feature of great importance if you want to keep moisture — or the contents of a swimming pool — out of those sensitive areas. The Active is rated for IP67, which means it's dustproof and can hang out underwater as deep as 1 meter for as long as 30 minutes. That leads us to ...

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

... the sticker that warns you to pay particular attention to seating the battery cover. "For maximum protection against humidity and water, firmly seal battery cover and USB cover before use," it reads. Indeed, it's easy to correctly position the battery cover but not necessarily have it completely seated. (You can see that in a couple of our pictures here if you look close, actually.) The sticker reminds you to press just below the camera's flash.

We'd recommend patience. Take your time and make sure everything's properly seated and sealed. And it's ugly, but maybe leave that sticker there as a reminder.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

One other major difference from the S4 proper is the display. Both are 5 inches in the diagonal, with 1080 by 1920 resolution. But the Active is using a TFT LCD panel instead of the AMOLED on the GS4 proper. It's by no means a bad display to use, but it definitely affects colors a bit. Blacks aren't as black, giving everything muted feel. The Active loses the "Professional Photo" display mode, for what that's worth. We've usually just stuck with "Standard" in the display options and  called it a day.

Otherwise, in terms of hardware, there's not a lot more to say. Internally it's got the same specs as the GS4. The IR functionality made it in as well. But we're digging the overall look and feel more than the GS4 proper. It's more interesting. It's more usable. And it's got the added bonus of not being as sensitive to the elements.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active specs

Galaxy S4 Active software

Galaxy S4 Active home screens

Things are pretty familiar on the software front as well. The Active is running Android 4.2.2 with Touchwiz, with the same overall experience as the Galaxy S4 proper. Home screens are the same. All of the 3,000 bells and whistles are there to use if you want to, including Air View and Air Gesture, Smart Stay and Smart Scroll. S Health is on board as well, though you lose the humidity sensor for obvious reasons. 

By the way, you'll still want to silence that torturous plop-drop sound.

One welcome change is with Driving Mode. It's available as part of S Voice on the Galaxy S4 proper, but it's gained more granular controls on the Active, with options in the settings menu. (We'd hope to see that added to the GS4 proper in a future software update.) You can still toggle Driving mode in the quick settings.

AT&T's usual suite of apps are on board, of course. That includes AT&T's own driving mode, which duplicates a bit of Samsung's. Hardly the worst offender when it comes to duplicated features, though. That honor goes to ...

Message someone - it dares you

Annoying fun fact: There are three "messaging" apps on the Active out of the box — "Messages," which is an AT&T joint, "Messaging," from Samsung, and "Messenger," which is a by-product of Google+ and has since been replaced by Hangouts. But it's still baked into this ROM. Never mind the reason — that's just poor user experience one way or another.

The long and short of the software is that not much has changed. It's still loaded with features — overloaded, perhaps — and remains as usable here as on the GS4 proper. 

The Galaxy S4 Active camera

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active camera aqua mode

Guess what: The Active has mostly the same camera as the GS4 proper, though at a lower top-en resolution. By default it shoots at a 16:9 wide-screen 6 megapixels — 3264 by 1836. You can bump that up to a full 8 megapixels if you want, changing to a 4:3 aspect ratio (3264 by 2448 resolution) in the process.

The Active still has a great all-around camera, but it does struggle a bit in low light compared to other recent phones. 

You lose out on the dual-camera feature that the GS4 proper sports — hardly the end of the world — but you gain a dedicated "Continuous shot" mode that shoots off four frames per second.

The fun feature, of course, is that the Active has a special underwater "Aqua" mode. While it's safe to get water on the display, the touchscreen gets pretty wonky when that happens. So Aqua mode moves the shutter controls to either the volume buttons. You can choose to have it take a still picture, or start recording video. (You also get a reminder to check the cover on the USB port. Good idea.) 

And you know what? It works extremely well. Our only complaint is that it's still possible to accidently zoom in by pinching on the display — and then it's damned near impossible to zoom back out because the screen is all wonky when wet. Otherwise, it's a lot of fun. (It's also worth noting that the phone quickly becomes the tool of an underwater creepshot artist. Mind your butts, ladies and gents. And apologies to my wife, but someone had to test it!)

Galaxy S4 Active camera samples

Galaxy S4 Active rear camera 

Galaxy S4 Active front​ camera

Galaxy S4 Active underwater samples

Other odds and ends

  • No problems on our end for either voice or data.
  • Same for GPS or Bluetooth.
  • NFC is still on board. No, we didn't test it underwater.
  • The Active doesn't make you swim better or hike longer. It just handles it better than you might in the long run.
  • The rear speaker is loud and high and tinny, normal for Samsung phones, even with the extra waterproofing. Still sounds fine after coming out of the water and drying off.
  • Samsung has thrown in a flashlight app! Go to Settings>My Device to find "Torch light." You can then set a shortcut to activate it by pressing and holding volume-up when the display is off. You also can set a timeout. Hitting any other buttons turns off the flashlight.

The bottom line

At the time of this writing, the Galaxy S4 Active is only available in the U.S. on AT&T. It'll run you $199 with a two-year contract or about $600 at full price. And that exclusivity is a shame, as we'd probably come really close to recommending the Active over the Galaxy S4 proper outright. We're certainly ready to do that for AT&T.

For one, it's got a more interesting design. Maybe we're just looking for something new and different from the flagship Galaxy, but there's nothing wrong with that, and that's what we've got in the Active. While it's not a "rugged" phone, the additional protection against water and dust is a welcomed safety net. And, frankly, it's just fun. While we'll still question the logic of taking a $600 smartphone into any body of water, you can't deny the results. You lose out a little bit in camera resolution and in display color quality, but both remain more than acceptable.

The bottom line is that the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is a fun, robust Android smartphone that is a serious contender for anyone looking for a high-end phone on AT&T.


Reader comments

Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 Active for AT&T


Was about to say that. We all make mistakes. Least Phil can edit his.

Posted via the mystical forest creatures that power this Nexus 4.

Pretty dam amazing for a camera phone, wish I had this when I used to go to hawaii every summer to visit my friends when they lived there

Just got mine on friday after leaving my BlackBerry Bold 9930 behind. Not a bad start for my first Android experience.

So the "screws" are just for decoration?
Looks like the back is still a snap-on.

Wish it weren't exclusive as well. Making waterproof S4's would make more S3 owners upgrade IMHO....

Is the LCD screen better in sunlight? I presume that's why they chose it because AMOLED is pretty much black in direct sunlight :-)

The screen is MUCH brighter indoors and out, with noticeably better color accuracy, e.g. whiter whites (the screen on the S4 is yellowish and dim by comparison). In direct sunlight, it's significantly better than the AMOLED. I'm not sure why most reviewers, Phil included, are calling the screen a "downgrade." Unless you exclusively use your phone in darkened rooms, the LCD screen on the S4 Active is superior in every way. Even the viewing angles are better on the LCD!

You seem to be confused about display technology. All color LCDs these days are TFT. They usually don't say it but that goes without saying. Before they were TFT, also known as Active Matrix, they were Passive Matrix and Dual-Scan Passive Matrix.

All current LCDs are excellent whether it's IPS, PLS, NOVA, SuperLCD 2, or SuperLCD 2. They are all brighter than OLED (it doesn't matter what kind, SuperAMOLED or whatever) and use less power in most situations. For what it's worth the GS4 Active most likely has a PLS LCD display. PLS is Samsung's competitor to IPS which gives similar, possibly better, results.

HTC started with OLED early and found it was a mistake with dimmer displays and higher power usage. They switch back to LCD and their phones have some of the best displays out there over the last few years.

More recently Samsung and Moto moved to OLED. While the technology has improved a lot from the time of the original Evo 4G and Droid Incredible LCD is still a ton brighter and it uses less power most of the time. They probably both moved to it to help make phones thinner. Now that layers can be combined on LCDs (at least the Nexus 4 and iPhone 5 are examples of this type of display) there is even less reason to use OLED.

That looks like a great bit of fun. Carrying around a $500+ piece of equipment all the time can make you re-think how you handle things like rain. Carrying a waterproof phone, that also happens to be really good, must take a load off of the mind.

Also, I hope that was a private pool. Otherwise the phone might get a urine-proof rating as well.

I was gonna get the S4 anyway but i might get this one instead if Rogers gets it that is. Fingers crossed.

Posted via Android Central App

I have two questions:

1. The sample video for the front-facing camera can be watched all the way up to 1080p. Does this phone really record in 1080p with the front-facing camera or was that upconvertd via editing software?

2. Does the display downgrade make a difference when viewing the screen outdoors in bright daylight when compared to the original S4? If the display in the S4 Active is easier to see outdoors then the downgrade isn't that terrible.

Also, greatest quote EVER for a review of this type of device: :)

"The Active doesn't make you swim better or hike longer. It just handles it better than you might in the long run." - Phil Nickinson

I think he might've confused the titles because the front-facing demo looks way better than the titled rear camera one.

I had to check twice. It looked that good. I think the rear camera had a bit of water on the lens, but what the hell. that was fun. :)

I left a similar comment elsewhere, but I'll also say it here: the LCD display on the S4 Active is significantly better than the AMOLED on the S4 in every aspect, except for minimum black levels. It's twice as bright, and much more visible in daylight. Indoors, you'll notice significantly better color accuracy and less off-axis color shift (i.e. better viewing angles), and theoretically more detail because it's not PenTile (though I personally don't think the PenTile effect on the S4 is very noticeable).

The screen is NOT a downgrade. It's an upgrade, unless you only use your phone in the dark.

I can see the PenTile effect on the S 4 no problem because no matter how high the ppi is it's still sub-pixel rendering. Too bad this phone isn't on f$%^ing Verizon with 32 GB.

ROFL@the kid video. I'm underwater! No I'm not! I'm underwater! No I'm not! I'm underwater! No I'm not! I'm underwater! No I'm not! I'm underwater! No I'm not!

I wonder how much ATT needs to spend to get this as an exclusive? I'd never change carriers for a phone.

I doubt they paid anything. Verizon isn't interested because they like minimal choice for some reason and the other carriers probably figure one S 4 model is enough.

Had this phone for a few days. Still having trouble with cases etc from what I hear. Since I had a S4 already I took it back and got a lifeproof case for my iPhone 5. A tough or rugged camera might be a better option if this is not your primary phone.

How do you like the Lifeproof case? My girlfriend needs a case for her iPhone 5 and she had mentioned getting that one.

Lots of complaints in user reviews on Amazon etc about Lifeproof cases not actually water getting in etc.

Just like the S4 Active getting water inside...mostly operator induced...if you test that O ring on the lifeproof properly, it is indeed waterproof! Have bought 4 of them, tested them and installed with no issues.

Love the lifeproof. When installed properly it is so sweet and low profile. Not like a otterbox. Make sure to follow the instructions and test it underwater for an hour before using as most issues are operator induced.

I bought one for my daughter and sisters. I wish they would hurry and make one for the S4. May try the OBEX for the S4 if the profile is slim enough.

The biggest problem is Samsung gives you an aquamode, but leaves you completely SOL if there is any sort of manufacturing defect or leak and there is any water damage, even when using correctly following their less than 3ft/30min guidelines. I know two people who have had them die within a few days of owning them trying them out. Scary.

I'll admit I was looking for the shot you took of your wife Phil.
The phone seems wicked cool though and if it were on Verizon I'd own it for sure!

Posted via Android Central App

I have to say, I was too. Please don't ban me. :)

Seriously though. Nice phone. I wish my GNex was waterproof; it would have save me a big headache last month.

I'm still teetering between this and the regular S4. If I have the Active, I probably won't be doing any underwater shots--I will be using the waterproof for protection against accidents (and idiots). I don't know if I want to sacrifice the awesome display on the S4 (or the dual camera) for that though. I'm having a hard time deciding.
And loved the quote about the underwater creepshots...."Mind your butts, ladies and gents." I imagined Shake from ATHF saying that one...couldn't help it. :)

My brother got this phone on Monday. I was really impressed with it! I would get this phone over the s4 proper any day. That teal color is also really sharp. It might be worth mentioning too that right now at at&t if u buy an s4 (any model) you can get a Note 8 for 200 bucks! And if you trade in an old phone they take it off the cost. My brother didnt want it so I ended up getting it. After trade in I got the Note 8 for only 80 bucks! (2 year contract of course as its LTE)

This would be my wife's next phone if it ever comes to T-Mobile. Currently on Verizon and looking for an excuse to drop that outrageous mobile bill (5 lines on VZW = A kidney).

Why do reviewers keep saying that the screen is a downgrade, full well knowing that the LCD performs better in direct sunlight? Anyway, I'm excited to get this! It sure helps that my full upgrade eligibility is in a couple weeks.

Thanks for the post, Phil. Question:

Does IP67 protects against salt (i.e., ocean) water? I'm guessing it does, but I wanted to make sure.

Thanks again!

IP 67 is not IP 67 it' s better descirbed as ip6&7

IP First number - Protection against solid objects
IP Second number - Protection against liquids

6 = Protected from dust (which is smaller then Salt usually)
7 = Protected against the effects of immersion in water to depth between 15 cm and 1 meter

Thanks! Yeah, I saw that on Wikipedia. I didn't ask about salt as is, I meant salted water, like in ocean. I live in the coast so I was wondering if it provided the same level of protection against ocean water as well. Does it?

Considering ocean water is waaaay more corrosive and dangerous than regular (i.e., pool, river) water, I wouldn't want to take any chances.

I couldn't find (confirm) that information.

LCD is way better than AMOLED, much more accurate colors and better outdoor visibility. I'd take LCD over AMOLED anyday!

Yeah not an AMOLED fan at all. It's like those tv screens that look great inside under fluorescent light in a show room but like ass everywhere else.

You bought a OLED TV and put it outside?? As of today there are 2 OLED tv's on the market, both over $2500, and both are under 16 inches diagonal. That makes for a pretty expensive outdoor tv viewing experiment.

In the world of imaging technology, LCD displays are a cheap-to-manufacture placeholder. OLED tech is going to take over the home TV market within the next 5 years. It is already happening, akin to the echo of 15 years ago when flat-screen plasma displays were emerging into the home TV market. We will see 55" LG OLED tv on the market later this year for an estimated $10k.

If you are upset with mobile OLED displays, then you are being smite'd by the arrogant lack of color calibration by the mobile display vendors (LG, Samsung). Speculatively; if Apple were to have used OLED screens, there would be a different opinion throughout the mobile industry as Apple would have demanded a fully intensity normalized color calibrated display. LG and Samsung cut costs by not color calibrating OLED screens, thus why almost every OLED mobile screen made shows a different color when given the same calibration target. This is also the reason for over-saturated colors.

As for viewing OLED screens outside in direct sunlight, I personally have not had any issue viewing the display on my old SGS2. Of course my SGS2 is a full RGB subpixel display, and I turn my viewing angle as to not let the sun's reflection blind me (figured that would be obvious -maybe even common sense).

Heh, until now saying anything about LCDs > Amoleds was heresy in Samsung land, but now suddenly its an upgrade.

All else aside I think it looks really sharp and distinctive, I like the look of it a lot more. Does the added bulk and insulation make it any more impact resistant? or would you still be looking at a case if worried about that? And would cases pose a problem in water, or would you remove cases before water use?

I really like the general idea of it for protection from accidents and the like though I can't see me intentionally dunking one (I did lose a Moto Q9H a couple years ago when it got knocked into a sauna and stayed on the first step for about ten minutes, worked fine the next day but slowly degraded after that until it didn't work). That they were able to pull that off despite having a removable back cover is impressive, I would have thought that would be easier to pull off with a unibody construction, kudos. I think I would just be too nervous taking it with me in the water, though, especially with that depth limit worried I would drop it and it would slide beyond that.

FWIW, did it mention anything about salt water, and if it is okay with that?

Unlike other variants of the GS4 it's good to see that for the most part, this one kept the same specs as the original. The loss in MP on the camera would be a deal breaker for me though.

Would still take the Sony xperia z over the Samsung. It does offer a little more for the bug. All ahead the camera of 13 mp that since the 4.2.2 update has been amazingly awesome. And the screen has been better too since update. But I guess this S4 active is fine I guess.

Posted via Android Central App

I love the color. :) If it really does what it says it does, then it will open up a new (or bigger) door to the future of waterproff devices! Thanks for the review Phil!! (love the butts true)

Picked it the S4 Active up and handled it at AT&T. Removed the back cover there is a seal. Also a small rubber seal on the USB. The screen is very very nice. I got rained on this past weekend and really did not want to destroy my HTC DNA. The Active really makes you feel a little better about getting caught in the rain. It may be the phone that makes me switch back to AT&T.

Is it just me or does the 100% cropped pictures look a bit on the muddy side? In direct daylight, I'd expect the pictures to come out just a bit cleaner.

Samsung gave the GS4 Active an LCD display because it's made for outdoor use and LCDs are much brighter and use less power than OLED displays. What doesn't make sense to me is why Samsung and Moto still use OLED displays on any phones. Probably to get a thinner phone because no backlight is needed with OLED but I'll take the extra think ness for a brighter display that uses less power.

Nonleak Waterproofing usually is extremely good quality conscious and development driven corporation since we have 6 season encounter on this area. Waterproofing may well sound like a secondary, less crucial or a unwanted cure to you personally. Nonetheless it is just about the most important sort of security within Property, Industrial sectors, Nursing homes, Hospitals, Stores, Wedding party Halls, Lodges and so forth.

Ok no one ha asked about screen protectors. Is it scratch resistant or will I have to buy a screen scratch protector for the Galaxy active if I buy one?

Thanks for the review, it is very interesting.

I would like to know more about the outdoor visibility of the display of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

Has somebody tested the outdoor visibility of the S4 Active display ?
Is it better or worse than other high-end smartphones?
How does it compare against the ordinary Samsung Galaxy S4 ?


considering I am a huge fan of amoled displays i own the aactive and the LCD is quite nice to look at and bright and the angles are great I am surprised. Still wish it had amoled cuz it only took 2 minutes to root the active. Was easiest root ever, even easier than all my nexus's. Snapdragon 600 is the shiz. Wish it had the upcoming 800 lol. Its a better phone than the normal sgs4

Wow. Ok peeps...once rooted amoled or non brand oled is much superior. Here is why..with proper kernel color multipliers can be almost doubled to achieve same brigbtness levels lcd is capable of. Example. .200 rgb is android default and 255 is highest achieved on any lcd....4oo is achievable on amoled. And with red and green at 320 and blue at 400 white is pure white and power grab supposedly from amoled is so untrue. Example the reason blacks are so superior on amoled is the pixel is actually OFF ....more power from an off pixel? I think not. All things said why lcd is superior is FALSE once proper kernel(control) and root is achieved. And all phones one day will be oled technology. ...lcd cant achieve bendable screens because back lighting in a must. Root people.....ROOT and control YOUR phone. Xda senior member Crwolv. Special thanx to franco of franco kernel for everything. Th3bill and shabbypenguine